Total Depravity – Part Three

By: Dr. Roger Smalling

Excerpt from his book Unlocking grace


How does God regard the good works of the unsaved?

He does not regard them at all, because no unsaved person has ever done a good work. 

Impossible! exclaimed a doctor in one of my theology courses. Now I know that you are really off base, professor! He said. I know many fine non-Christians who provide for their families, give to charity, serve the community and are good conscientious citizens. Are you saying that these good works are evil?

Although the answer may shock the modern humanist culture, the answer to the doctor’s exclamations is an uncompromising Yes! God counts all the good works of the unsaved, including those that agree with his commands, as sinful acts. This is true for two reasons: First, because these works proceed from a corrupted source, and second, they are practiced from impure motives.

First, the unregenerate heart is dominated by sin, with the self-enthroned as the central ruling figure, and its own pride and benefit as the highest value. Until this perverted nature is transformed, and the SELF dethroned, the entire nature of man is a fountain of corruption. Whatever proceeds from such a fountain will be tainted with corruption, and God’s holiness will accept none of it. This is true even if the deed performed is outwardly good. Jesus said, Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.  Matthew 7:17

No wonder Isaiah exclaimed, And all our righteousness’s are like filthy rags … [i] Take some filthy rags, make a sweater out of them, and present them to a prince. See how pleased he is with it. But that is what the unregenerate do when they imagine that God is pleased with their good works.

Secondly, the motives of the unregenerate are impure. How do we know this? Because, for whatever is not from faith is sin. (Romans 14:23) [ii] After all, whatever is done for other motives than the glory of God and submission to his will is merely a subtle form of rebellion.

The unregenerate are never so corrupt as when they are being charitable. The only thing that could be worse is when they are being religious. Such works serve no only to deceive the unsaved into imagining they are good, and that God must be pleased with them.

After all, if the unsaved really wanted to please God, then they would do the first thing that God requires: Repent and submit to the Lordship of his Son.

What shall we do, that we may work the works of God? [iii], the Apostles asked. In the next verse, Jesus replied, This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom He sent.

This term believe implies something more profound than the accomplishment of a good work. It suggests a personal trust in Christ that leads directly to an obedience that dethrones the self. This faith places Jesus as the central figure in the life of a person, and his will as the highest value. No work of any unsaved person, however outwardly good he may be, can be an adequate substitute for this self-abandonment.

The unregenerate do good works and religious acts as substitutes for submission, rather than signs of the auto-negation of a purified heart. The self remains enthroned.

Was this not the problem with the Pharisees? Did not Jesus say that the prostitutes and thieves were closer to the kingdom of God than they? Was this a mere poetic exaggeration?

Many works of the Pharisees were in accord with the divine Law since obedience to the Law was the central focus of their movement. In what sense then, were the works of the Pharisees worse than those of prostitutes and robbers? The self-deception involved in a work proceeding from a corrupt heart perverts any deed into a sin worse than those just mentioned.

So it is not surprising that Paul, while discoursing on unregenerate humanity, said: There is none righteous, no, not one; Romans 3:10.

Is this a brand new doctrine, recently invented? Note that an ancient Christian document written in 1648, (The Westminster Confession of Faith), affirms:

Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands; and of good use both to themselves and others: yet, because they proceed not from an heart purified by faith; nor are done in a right manner, according to the word; nor to a right end, the glory of God, they are therefore sinful, and cannot please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God: and yet, their neglect of them is more sinful and displeasing unto God. (Chapter 16, Art.7)

God requires good works of everyone, including from the unsaved. Yet when the unsaved do them, they are sinning. If they fail to do them, however, the omission is even worse. Sadly, they never contribute to their salvation, only their condemnation. This is the essence of slavery to sin.

Nothing less than the incredible miracle of the new birth can change this hopeless situation.

[i]      Isaiah 64:6

[ii]       Romans 14:23

[iii]      John 6:28

Questions or comments for Dr. Smalling